By on May 12, 2022

We return to our Rare Rides Icons coverage of the Ford Festiva today. An important world vehicle for the likes of Ford, Mazda, Kia (and eventually many others), the Festiva arrived at a time when rear-drive subcompacts were being replaced by much more efficient models that were front-drive. And the Mazda-designed Festiva was certainly more efficient and more front-drive than the Fiesta it replaced.

We covered the Festiva’s boxy, simple styling in our last entry, so today we jump straight into its platform and mechanicals. In 1981, Mazda changed the way it named its platforms. It assigned two-letter codes that were used for the fifth and sixth characters in VINs on Mazda-produced vehicles from the 1981 model year onward. Mazda uses this platform classification system today.

From the start, all letter coding with a D at the front represented a subcompact car that was front-wheel drive. The Festiva was assigned DA, as the first such car Mazda ever created. The DA had a short wheelbase of just 90.4 inches. The overall length for the Festiva at debut was 136.8 inches, with an overall width of 63.2 inches. Festiva reached 57.5 inches in height and had a weight of between 1,540 and about 1,720 pounds dependent on equipment and body style.

With a transverse engine layout, the front-drive Festiva used an independent front suspension with struts, coil springs, and a sway bar. The rear suspension was a torsion beam design. As one might expect, the Festiva’s engines were all Mazda units that hailed from the B family. The B was new at the time, and through its many variations was in production between 1985 and 2005. Notably, the engine design was non-interference, which meant the engine wasn’t lunched in the event of a timing belt failure. An important feature when running a car on a tight budget.

The first three engines to debut in the B lineup were all used in the Festiva. The most basic was the B1, a tiny 1.1-liter inline-four that had eight valves and was available only in SOHC guise. This most basic of engines was limited to use from 1987 to 1989 and was only used in the European and Asian markets. Kia would later use this engine in the Sephia.

Many people were interested in a BJ. The mid-level engine had 1.3-liters of displacement, with 16 valves and the all-important DOHC and single-point fuel injection. Only Japanese market Festivas used the BJ, and only in particularly sporty trims. The 1.3 was good for 87 horsepower.

Finally, the largest Festiva engine on offer was the B3. Slightly larger than the BJ’s 1,290 cc displacement, the B3 was 1,324 cc. It was offered only in SOHC guise and was available in the Festiva as well as Mazda’s larger Familia, the Ford Laser, and the successor to the Festiva the Aspire. Initially, the B3 was carbureted, but it was later developed further and received fuel injection. With either fuel distribution type, it had 63 horsepower. In the Nineties, the B3 was updated and enhanced, which added 10 horsepower to its rating. The B3 lived until 2005 in the Kia Rio, and until 2014 in Kia’s Pride.

Speaking of Pride, that’s what Kia called their version of the Festiva. The Pride was assembled locally in South Korea from the start, and the market was one of the first to start its production. Assembled under license, production started in 1986 for the 1987 model year.

Australia and Europe received the Festiva under its most accurate identity, as the Mazda 121. Sales for those markets started in 1987 as well. The Mazda 121 was a short-lived model, however, and after 1991 the 121 turned into the Ford Festiva on the Australian continent. In Europe, the 121 became the Kia Pride.

The thing to keep in mind with the Festiva: At its base, it was a Ford product request, and though Mazda handled the project themselves it was Ford calling the shots when Festiva went on sale. And so it was that in February 1986 the Mazda was launched in its home market of Japan, as the Ford Festiva. The hatchback was not available as a Mazda in Japan.

Japanese Festiva trims in its launch year included L, L Special, S, Ghia, and Canvas Top. Initial trims were supplemented later in 1986 for the ’87 model year by the GT and GT-X, which used the aforementioned DOHC engine. The Festiva was available through Ford’s Japanese dealership arm, called Autorama.

Though the cars for the Japanese market were produced in Japan and wore Ford badges, the Festivas for the North American market were produced in South Korea alongside the Kia Pride. North Americans had to wait a bit for the Festiva, as sales didn’t start in the US until late in ’87 for the 1988 model year. Canadian sales were even later, as the Festiva appeared there in January of 1989. To aid in distribution, the Festiva was also available at Mercury dealerships in Canada.

Unlike other markets, the North American Festiva was limited to one engine, the 1.3-liter B3. There were just three trim levels at introduction: L, L Plus, and LX. As commenters pointed out in our last entry, the way to tell the LX apart was via its luxurious rear wiper.

But the LX was upgraded in other ways, in that it was the only one to have a tilt steering wheel and a tachometer. It was truly the days of the basic subcompact car, as unless the LX was selected there were no alloy wheels, no interior mirror adjustments, and no cloth on the seats (only vinyl). Want a cassette player? You’d need to spring for the LX. The LX also featured a five-speed manual, with other trims represented by a four-speed. Those who avoided shifting themselves found their driving experience punctuated by a three-speed Mazda automatic.

It’s interesting to consider the market differences between the Festiva of Japan and the North American one. No DOHC engine, no sports trims with body kits, no canvas roof! It’s almost like Ford had to suppress the Festiva’s appeal so it didn’t conflict with other important small cars in the lineup, like the Escort.

While we’re on the topic of market differences, we need to cover the other markets that produced various versions of the Festiva for a long time. Aside from Mazda’s production (through 1992) and Kia’s (through 2000), there were three other major licensed manufacturers of the Festiva. In 1993 SAIPA of Iran began production of the Festiva under its own branding and built them in Iraq. In China, the Dongfeng Yueda Kia joint venture began its production in 1997. Finally, AAV joined the club in 1998 with Egyptian production.

It turned out AAV had the shortest interest in the Festiva, as it built the hatchback only through 2002. Dongfeng continued its manufacture through 2003. But SAIPA took the cake, as it produced various versions of the 1986 design through 2020. SAIPA called the Festiva a 111, 131, 132, and 141. Then they made a pickup truck out of it and called it 151. It also had some formal names, like Pride, Saba, and Nasim. Chinese production saw the Festiva rebranded as the Guangtong GTQ5010X, as the Chinese subcompact customer enjoys a long model name.

Through its various assembly locations, the Festiva was built at one factory in Japan, two in South Korea, and two in China. It was also built in the aforementioned Iran and Iraq, as well as Egypt, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Venezuela.

A tiny and yet very well-traveled car. We’ll talk about all the variations of the Festiva in our next installment. We’ll also cover the refreshes and updates that happened over its first generation.

[Images: Ford, Mazda, Kia, SAIPA]

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16 Comments on “Rare Rides Icons: The Ford Festiva, a Subcompact and Worldwide Kia by Mazda (Part II)...”

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    If you put an SHO engine in the back, these are OK. Otherwise even the POS’s I owned 8n the 90s were nice next to one of these.

  • avatar

    The 10-inch tires just scream performance.

  • avatar

    But as you described in Part One – these didn’t replace Pinto – That was Escort’s job. These replaced Fiesta. And as I learned when taking delivery of my Tracer: Dealerships would take cassette radios from cars that had them and put them into cars that didn’t – and replace them with the cheaper radio – trim level & window sticker be damned.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, you’re right. Just me not thinking about it. Corrected.

    • 0 avatar
      Jeff S

      That happened to me when I bought my 99 S-10 and I took it back to the dealer and made them put in the cassette radio which is what was on the window sticker. Unfortunately someone else didn’t get the cassette radio in their truck but hopefully they noticed and got an additional discount.

      • 0 avatar

        I bought an ’89 Tracer from dealer stock that had only the standard stereo radio with no cassette player. I wanted that, so I had them swap it with another car that had a radio/cassette head unit. These looked like a standard Ford radio except for orange rather than green night lighting, but the salesman told me the Tracer radio used a Mazda wiring harness rather than a standard Ford harness, so the color wasn’t the only difference. I never thought to check if the price for the car it was swapped from was lowered to reflect it no longer having a cassette player. Anyway I later wanted to be able to plug in a portable Walkman-type CD player and the only way to do this was with one of those awful AUX in to cassette shell converters, so I upgraded the head unit to a Denon cassette radio that had both a front-panel AUX input and rear red & white RCA line-in jacks to add in a CD player. It also had changeable-color night lighting – mine lit in red.

  • avatar

    I know this is a series about the Festiva, and I really enjoy all of these series about older cars, most of which I remember quite well, but could you spare a little time to talk about the Ford FIRSTA of 1976? With its very interesting (to me) 1.6L engine with a machined flat cylinder head and unique dished out pistons. My brother had one from new with 12” ally wheels, Michelin XZX 155/12 tires (great tires) and what looked like an A/C system hacked in by the dealer. Horrible car, but at the same time I loved it.

  • avatar

    ‘Many people were interested in a BJ.’

    Who wouldn’t?

    • 0 avatar
      Matt Foley

      There’s got to be a juvenile “Dongfeng” joke to be made here, but I’ve got nothing.

      The Festiva was a surprisingly good little car. My M-I-L had a teal green ’93 5-sp back in the day and it epitomized the “slow car fast = fun” thing. The Mazda DNA shone through. And I worked with a girl who bought one of the first ones (’88? ’87?), which I think was a 4-sp manual. She put 160k miles on it before Ohio road salt killed it.

      • 0 avatar
        Jeff S

        I know someone who had a Festiva and it was very dependable. Wish we would have gotten the truck version of the Festiva but then Ford would not have wanted it to compete with the Ranger. I would have bought the truck version if it was available.

    • 0 avatar

      As soon as I read that line, I was thinking, “how long until a Beavis & Butthead-style comment comes up.” It took seven postings. I commend the group on it’s restraint.

  • avatar

    If you spent the money on the LX version, you got a really decent little car. If you just went for the L, you got what you deserved, you cheap bastard.

    I had my LX for three years (normal car buying habit back then) and was quite happy with it. The five speed worked quite well.

  • avatar

    The GT-X model would probably have been a fun driver.

  • avatar

    Couple things:
    1) never knew about the SAIPA 151. Mind blown.
    2) never knew that these were never sold in Japan as a Mazda 121, or that Ford sold them there as a Festiva.
    3) I still see these now & then. I was a true Honda freak back then, but I still admire that these are simple and to the point. College friend’s girlfriend had one and said it was a hoot to drive.
    4) the dealer in my rural east coast hometown would sell these as L Plus or LX models with numerous upgrades like stereos, stripes, flip up sunroofs or sometimes fabric roofs like a Renault R5, etc.
    5) I would much rather have one of these than a new Mini, Smart, etc. It’s an excellent city car for someone who doesn’t need a daily car.

  • avatar

    its time to bring back a cheap ragtop as an option

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